For more than two decades the Long Beach QFilm Festival in California has brought something exciting every year, featuring the best in independent films from all over the world. This year the film festival etches a plethora of films relevant to today’s social issues and sexual fluidity.
“While You Weren’t Looking,” directed by Catherine Stewart, for example, fades into class where, The instructor challenges his students to think beyond social confines. “The nation is heterosexual,” the instructor declares as he presents his students with queer gender polarity. “If we can queer gender, we can queer identity, culture, nature and subject. And, that’s freedom.” This film could easily be staged as a multi-faceted play that tackles both socio-economic issues and sexuality.
Asanda (Petronella Tshuma), has the world at her feet: two loving mothers, a protective maid, a clingy boyfriend and interesting gender-bending, queer studies course. That is, until she meets Shado (Thishiwe Ziqubu), an androgynous woman who “packs” so that people believe she is a man. Asanda had a boyfriend at the beginning of the film, but on her 18th birthday she meets Shado and kisses her thinking Shado was a man.
“For protection, you know how hard it is to be a woman around here,” Shado explains to her grandmother. Her point is proven when later in the film a man threats to rape her and Asanda.
While many elements have moved the equality pendulum forward, classism remains. There are many examples that prove that Asanda and Shado are from two different worlds. When Shado takes Asanda to Khayalitsha, the town where she lives, Asanda also is confronted with a culture shock. She doesn’t know the dialect and she is viewed as a rich outsider by people of the same skin, but totally different culture. Then, when Shado visits Asanda’s home in the city, she is greeted by a maid that tells her she does not belong in there.
There differences are even underlined in their own interactions during moments of intimacy. “Have you ever been on an airplane,” asked Asana, who plans to study abroad.
“No, but I’ve been to an airport,” Shado responds.
Through two separate, but related storylines, “While You Weren’t Looking” challenges its audience to look beyond marriage as the pinnacle of equality. The essence of family, struggle and social inequity also takes center stage in “While You Weren’t Looking.” The film looks at modern South African society’s have and have-nots.
Asanda’s parents, real estate developer Dez (Sandi Schultz) and Terri (Camilla Lilly Waldman) are living the life of wealth complete with a beautiful home and maid. Their wealth shields them from discrimination. While their marriage includes a beautiful 18-year-old daughter and a steamy sexual relationship, Dez’s eyes still wanders and philanders.
A careful observation of the relationships among the two couples: Dez and Terri — a middle-aged, mixed race couple — and their daughter, Asanda and Shado, shows the classist issues. In fact, the maid later tells Terri that people, “like her” are not welcome member of the community she is from. When Terri correctly assumes that the maid is referring to Shado’s sexuality, the maid tells her that she is different, because of her social status.
My only criticism is the realism of the film’s un-ending. As it is in real life, there is no clear conclusion that resolves the issues. The ending is abrupt and I like conclusions, even if they aren’t happy endings. However, this might be purposeful to show how things tend to stay the same and people, for one reason or another, stay in their own bubbles.
By contrast, “Liz in September” (based on the classic lesbian play, “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove”) is more of a classic romance with a solemn but happy ending.
The story takes place in lesbian resort, where Eva (Eloísa Maturén) shows up after being stranded when her car breaks down. Eva is on her way to meet her husband in Carracas. You can assume that her marriage has been rocky since death of her son, who died of cancer.
Like “While You Weren’t Looking,” “Liz in September” explores sexual fluidity through the eyes of Eva and Liz. While many people maintain that sexuality is rigid the bond between two people often transcends those assertions.
“There are shades of gray but nobody takes them in consideration.”
At the beginning of the film, Liz (played by the beautiful supermodel and activist, Patricia Velasquez), states she was born gay.
“Without any doubt, and then when I started having experiences with girls I became even more gay,” said Liz at the beginning of the film. “I like women very much.”
When Eva arrives, her friends dare Liz to seduce her but Eva is the one who ends up winning Liz’s heart despite attempts by other characters to seduce her. Liz is a womanizer losing her fight against cancer, and Eva is a grieving mother, hungry for love. “Death is the betrayal of God,” but one that help these two women find love and comfort in each other’s arms. Make sure to stay for the Q-and-A. The beautiful and talented protagonists, Velasquez and Maturén have confirmed that they will be there.
There’s also plenty of eye candy for those who love the male persuasion. “Velociraptor” is one such film. The low-budget pre-apocalyptic movie from México begins with a narrator foreshadowing the central theme. It’s a coming-of-age story right when the world is about to end. “The end is the perfect moment to show who we really are.”
Two best friends, one gay and one straight or “buga” (as I learned from both this film and “Liz in September” to be a slang term for heterosexual), spend their last day on earth together. Álex (Pablo Mezz) asks his best friend Diego (Carlos Hendrick Huber Ocampo) to be the one he loses his virginity to. The majority of the film is spent between flashbacks, soliloquies and Diego considering Álex’s proposal.
At one point Diego, steals of photo of Álex and he in the refrigerator, and kisses Álex, but then warns him. “Though, I still haven’t said ‘yes’ and it’s very probable that I say ‘no,’” Diego says.
While a bit slow for my own taste, I appreciated the theme of tenderness and love in its purest sense. Of all the people in the world these two youngsters chose each other to spend their last day.
There is definitely something for everyone at the festival. For me, “How to Win at Checkers (Every Time),” written and directed by Josh Kim, stands out as one of the best selections.
Most of the film takes place in the past, when Oat (played by Ingkarat Damrongsakkul), was eleven years old. His older brother, Ek (played by (Thira Chutikul), has stepped up to the plate to help their aunt rear him.
Homophobia doesn’t have a part in this film. Instead, it is social stratification that leads to the climax of the story in a world where you do what you have to do to survive.
Ek, who just happens to be gay, is at the age where he must submit to Thailand’s annual military draft lottery. As with many other countries that utilize the draft system, the likelihood of being drafted is more a matter of privilege than luck. When Oat inadvertently learns this fact he decides to take things into his own hands to try to help his brother, but his actions have consequences. Checkers, like the red and black lottery object, are symbolic. They are what open Oat’s eyes to learn that sometimes you must “do everything you need to win, even if it means someone else loses.”
If you are like me, subtitled films are often a task not worthy of undertaking, but “How to Win at Checkers” definitely merits your time. Set in modern Bangkok, the film takes an endearing look at the love between two orphaned brothers. What is fascinating about the film is that, while there are gay elements to the film, the storyline is universal and the cinematography is superb. Based on the short stories “Draft Day” and “At the Café Lovely” by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, the characters can speak to many people’s experience of struggle in the confines of familial devotion.
Other films to keep an eye out for at the QFilm Festival are the documentary “Upstairs Inferno” and “Those People,” a feature film about a tight-knit group of friend confronting adulthood.
Check out the full schedule of 2015 features and shorts at: www.qfilmslongbeach.com.